One out of five children will experience mental illness. That’s 80,000 kids in Bexar County alone. The need for support for these children, their parents and their families is great, and because school plays such a large role in a child’s life, the school’s adult community should be a part of any child’s support system. But as parents and caregivers, we often wonder who is in the best position to help our child and what is the best way to solicit that support in a way that is both appropriate and helpful.
As reported by the American School Counselors Association (ASCA), “Students’ unmet mental health needs can be a significant obstacle to student academic, career and social/emotional development and even compromise school safety. Schools are often one of the first places where mental health crises and needs of students are recognized and initially addressed.” Identifying a mental health need early, when children are young, is perhaps one of the greatest values outside of academic instruction that schools – and by extension, teachers and school counselors – can provide a family.
Darcy Gruttadaro, director of advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agrees that school staff can help identify mental health needs early. “Kids spend six hours a day in school, and mental health is essential to learning. So schools that are very data-driven understand that in order for some kids to succeed, their mental health needs must be met,” she said.
Support Available from School Counselors
For families who don’t know where to begin to locate help, or families without the financial resources to secure private support, school counselors are lifelines. Among their many responsibilities, school counselors can assist with early intervention for cognitive and behavioral disorders. The ASCA notes that part of a school counselor’s responsibilities include:
- Providing responsive services including internal and external referral procedures, short-term counseling or crisis intervention focused on mental health or situational concerns
- Recognizing warning signs: changes in grades or attendance, mood changes, complaining of illness before school, increased disciplinary problems at school, experiencing problems at home or with a difficult family situation
- Providing school-based prevention and universal interventions. For example, school- or district-wide programs to prevent substance abuse that are delivered to the entire student population are universal interventions.
- Providing targeted interventions for students with mental health and behavioral health concerns, such as the SOS – Screening for Suicide program accessible through the Texas Department of Health Services.
How to Get Support from Your School
If you have a child experiencing mental illness, don’t keep it a secret from the teacher or the counselor. You want to share that information so they can better understand you and your child’s need for support. Follow these steps to get your school into your circle of care:
- Request a meeting with both your child’s teacher and the school counselor to discuss what your child is experiencing, request their support, and explore what day-to-day support could be.
- Communicate with the teacher and school counselor regularly to monitor your child’s progress and performance in school, and to request an additional support or referrals to outside resources, if needed.
- If you do not feel as though your child is getting the support he needs from his teacher and counselor. Consider requesting another meeting, this time to include someone from the school’s administrative team such as a vice-principal or principal.
In general, these types of requests are met with compassion and a sincere desire to help. However, some parents of children experiencing mental illness express some frustration with trying to work with a school. One mother, Jackie, shared, “There seems to be no understanding of the need for any input by the school personnel during the 8-10 hours the child is in their care about environmental triggers, medication response, or suggestions that improve performance.” Jackie’s perspective is an unfortunate result and not unique because disparities in school funding affect the resources the school can provide.
Fundamentally, school staff has a heart for children and want to provide support and resources whenever possible. The best way to get support for your child is to ask and ask often, if necessary. Remember, as a parent or caregiver, you are the greatest advocate for your child’s wellbeing.
In good health,
Rebecca Helterbrand is a senior vice president at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She passionately advocates to end the stigma of mental illness, increase access to care, and provide a promising future for our children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).